F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1932 short story, “Crazy Sunday,” follows a young screenwriter as he navigates the big egos and gaping insecurities that surround Hollywood’s rising film industry. After six months in the movie capitol and several successful script assignments to his credit, Joel Coles considers himself more than just a hack writer. An unexpected invitation to attend a powerful director’s party flatters his sense of himself as an emerging talent. The exclusive gathering is indeed a turning point for Joel, but instead of boosting his career, it snares him in a tangled web of love, betrayal, and tragedy.
Twenty-eight-year-old Joel Coles is a veteran of the theater world. He grew up in the footlights of Broadway, where his mother made her name as a successful actor. Recently arrived in Hollywood and trying to gain his own fame as a screenwriter, Joel prides himself on the work he has done for the highly respected director, Miles Calman. Independent and uncompromising, Miles has high standards and openly denounces industry professionals who drink too much.
When Miles’s secretary calls to invite Joel to a Sunday afternoon party at the director’s Beverly Hill’s home, Joel imagines himself hobnobbing with “the high hats, the big currency numbers, perhaps even Dietrich and Garbo.” He also imagines refusing a cocktail within earshot of Miles. Although he is a heavy drinker, Joel resolves to remain completely sober at Miles’s party.
Joel’s determination not to drink cannot withstand the charms of Miles’s beautiful wife, Stella Walker. Now a young film star, Stella was once a struggling actor in New York; it was there that she and Joel first met. Joel is pleased to see Stella again, admiring her exceptional attractiveness. When she offers him a cocktail, he finds her too lovely to refuse. One drink leads to another, and soon Joel’s sense of propriety suffers.
While under the cocktails’ influence, Joel recruits Stella to join him in a performance for the party guests of a short skit he has written. He doesn’t realize his error in judgment until he sees the humorless faces in his small audience. The skit, which ridicules the shallowness of Hollywood culture, falls flat in a room where movie personalities have gathered to impress each other with their importance.
When Joel wakes the next morning, the memory of his indiscretion at the party mortifies him. He sends a groveling note of apology to Miles, but cannot shake his sense of humiliation. Fearful he will never redeem himself after such a social blunder, Joel is immensely relieved when Stella asks him to dinner at her sister’s house.
The following Sunday, Joel joins other guests for dinner at the home of Stella’s sister. Stella and Miles arrive in a cloud of mutual hostility, “having been quarreling fiercely most of the afternoon.” The reason for their dispute soon emerges: Stella has discovered her husband’s long-time affair with her friend, an actor named Eva Goebel.
Both Stella and Miles prevail upon Joel to listen to their marital grievances. During Stella’s outpouring of anger over her husband’s infidelity, Joel “pretended to listen and instead thought how well she was got up.” Miles, who has “the unhappiest eyes Joel ever saw,” also unburdens his personal problems on the screenwriter. Finally, all three talk together. After much debate and no resolution, they adjourn to the Calman’s home, where the couple continues to bicker and solicit Joel’s opinion on intimate matters.
Later that week, Stella invites Joel to accompany her to a dinner and theater party on Saturday, explaining that Miles will be away at a Notre Dame football game. Joel accepts with trepidation and the understanding that he will inform Miles about their plans. When Miles hears the news, jealousy consumes him. He tells Joel he will cancel his trip to Notre Dame because he “can’t tell what Stella might do just out of spite” over his affair. Although Joel assures Miles he has no interest in Stella beyond friendship, Miles resolves to take Stella to the party himself but invites Joel to join them.
Joel goes to the theater on Saturday evening to meet up with the Calmans. When Stella arrives, looking devastatingly beautiful, she is alone. Miles decided to fly to Notre Dame after all. At Stella’s suggestion, they skip the post-show party and go to her house, where several telegrams arrive from Miles. The telegrams are short love notes to Stella, but she fears Miles has “faked” them and is actually still in town, spying on her.
Joel finds Stella irresistible and even believes he loves her. Although Stella encourages and enjoys his flirtation with her, she spends much of the evening sidestepping his attempts to seduce her. When Joel suggests she is simply using him to spark Miles’s jealously, Stella concedes that she loves her husband but is attracted to Joel. As midnight approaches, Joel abandons his efforts at lovemaking and prepares to leave, but Stella suddenly capitulates to his desire.
After they make love, the phone rings. The call relays the tragic news that Miles’s plane has crashed outside of Kansas City. Stella swoons with anguish, then rallies to assert, “He isn’t dead – I know he isn’t. This is part of his scheme. He’s torturing me.” Moments later, a telegraph boy appears bearing the message that Miles is indeed dead.
While Stella struggles to cope with her grief and shock, Joel presses her for the name of a friend who can come stay with her. She protests and begs Joel to remain, but he realizes she is desperate for his company only because he keeps Miles’s jealousy – and so Miles himself – alive in her mind. Joel calls Stella’s doctor, and when he arrives, Joel leaves, reflecting that Miles’s death leaves “a hell of a hole […] in this damn wilderness – already!”
F. Scott Fitzgerald worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood during the 1930s, and parts of “Crazy Sunday” derive from his experiences there. Miles Calman is based on the real-life Hollywood producer, Irving Thalberg. Fitzgerald attended a party at Thalberg’s home and, like Joel, embarrassed himself with a tasteless performance after drinking too much. In a series of stories known as “The Pat Hobby Stories,” which were published in the 1940s, Fitzgerald continued to mock himself and his career as a screenwriter through his fictional counterpart, Pat Hobby.